Jorge Hernandez, lead singer and accordion player of Los Tigres del Norte, left his home in Rosa Morada, Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1968 when he was 14 to play music in the United States. Like so many before, he and his even younger brothers and cousin came north hoping to make money for their family - their father was sick.
“We decided to come, it doesn’t matter what happens, we need money to take care of him,” Hernandez said. A border official dubbed the determined quartet, headed to San Jose, Calif., The Tigers of the North.
They played in restaurants and on sidewalks in front of bars, for family birthday parties, wherever and however they could. “We try to do anything,” Hernandez said. “It doesn’t matter what. You decide when you come from your hometown, that whatever life bring you is what you gonna do.”
Last week, Hernandez sat in a restaurant at the Doral Spa in Miami. It was a brief stop for some television appearances by Los Tigres, the most durable and popular group in regional Mexican music.
The long trip from their struggling beginnings to stellar success has been marked by thousands of nights of music and stories. The 55-year-old singer seems to remember them all:
The other acts on the bill for their first U.S. show: “a mariachi band, a woman singer, a man singer, the women dancers, and - how do you say it in English - a ventriloquo;” a ventriloquist.
The girl who invited them home to sing for her mother’s birthday, who then fed them for months.
Their first show in Florida, in a tiny dance hall in 1973.
The early days of driving from Florida to Arizona to Washington to California as they followed their migrant worker audience.
The man in Fort Wayne, Ind., who waited eight years to embrace Hernandez because his dead brother’s dying wish was that he deliver a hug to Los Tigres del Norte.
Everywhere they go, people line up for hours for autographs, photos, and to tell their own stories, hoping to someday hear them in a Los Tigres song, or just to tell their tale to someone who will listen and understand.
It is exhausting, and yet it empowers the group, too. “It’s life,” Hernandez said. “Any place you go, you see people, what’s going on. We travel all over, we see a lot of stuff on the street. It’s the only thing that we know. It makes me feel like I have more strength to live.”
Los Tigres del Norte have been drawing strength by telling the stories of immigrants like themselves for almost 40 years. Their 55 albums have sold more than 32 million copies and they travel in their own jet when they tour North and Central America.
They play constantly, some 150 shows a year, mostly in the United States, but also in Mexico, Central America, Europe and Asia, to crowds that can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands.
For decades they were strictly a Mexican immigrant phenomenon, far below the mainstream cultural radar.
But with immigration having become a hot political issue, Los Tigres has been discovered by the English language media. The group has been featured in The New York Times and Washington Post, on television and in documentary films, and has garnered awards and honors.
Amid this intensifying attention, they stick to their roots and their core audience, now made up of multiple generations of working-class Mexican and Central American immigrants.
While they can - and occasionally do - play the arenas and stadiums favored by other Mexican music stars, Los Tigres are far more likely to play convention halls, fairgrounds and civic centers - big, open spaces where thousands of people dance for hours.
As immigrants have spread into every corner of America, so has the group’s touring circuit - their 16 shows in June included the Disco Rodeo in Columbus, Ohio, and the Northwest Convention Center in Dalton, Ga., the “Carpet Capital of the World.”
“Most people of their stature only want to play big arenas, coliseums,” said Gustavo Arellano, syndicated columnist of “Ask A Mexican.” “These guys go where their audience is.”
And their audience is passionate about the group that constantly reflects their lives. Los Tigres’ music has essentially stayed the same: danceable, bouncy norteno, played with guitar, bass, accordion, drums and the occasional saxophone. There are four Hernandez brothers and one cousin in the group.
Certainly there are love stories in their songs. But there are other tales of the hard realities of people’s lives: of a man who dies trying to cross the border, of another who wonders if the wife still waits, of children who deny they’re Mexican.
“Los Tigres gave a voice to people who were totally disenfranchised,” said Dwayne Ulloa, director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Los Tigres del Norte Foundation. The group started the foundation in 2000 with a $500,000 gift to the University of California at Los Angeles for a project to preserve traditional Mexican music.
“They sang corridos about what immigrants were going through and the injustices they face once they got here.” Ulloa said. “It got a huge reaction, because nobody had given these people a voice before. To be at a Tigres show, there’s so much emotion and fanaticism, you hear 10,000 people relate to a song. After the shows people are crying and touching them, saying `that happened to me.’”
Hernandez and his brothers learned to listen when they were starting out in San Jose.
“What I used to do was walk the streets. I say `What am I gonna do?’” Hernandez said. “I used to think what is gonna happen to me and the boys. And you meet somebody on the road who speaks your language, and you talk, ask questions, and then you go forward.”
What started as a survival mechanism soon became a source of inspiration. One of the Tigres’ earliest gigs was playing for a group of women at home, raucous sessions that sometimes would last from afternoon until 4 a.m.
Although the musicians are now millionaires, the people they sing for still feel that the Tigres haven’t forgotten how it is to live check to check.
“Tigres del Norte are like one of us even though they are so famous,” said Eduardo “El Piolin” Sotelo, a popular Los Angeles Spanish language radio personality. “People don’t see Tigres as somebody unreachable because they’re always with the people.”
Now, instead of living immigrant struggles, Hernandez and his brothers hear about them from fans who wait till dawn at shows, or outside their hotel rooms. “Then we have the opportunity to talk to them,” Hernandez said. “It’s a very strong feeling. Because I see a lot in their faces, in their eyes, what they tell you.”
There was the woman from Guatemala, one of 15 hotel maids outside his room in Madison, Wis., who came to the United States by train and told him how she sent $30 a month to a refuge on the border between Mexico and Guatemala, for the people who also tried to ride the rails north and were crippled in the journey.
“I told her I was going to investigate,” Hernandez said. “This story marked me. These women - they think whatever they tell me I’m gonna sing about it.”
Such struggles seem more pressing than ever with the debate over immigration. The Tigres have been closely identified with the immigration rights movement. Last year they sang at a large immigration march in Los Angeles that Sotelo helped organize.
One of the songs on their latest album, this spring’s Detalles y Emociones (Details and Emotions), is El Muro (The Wall), where Hernandez sings, “Listen, Mr. President, you’d do better to build a bridge ... you know that you need us on your team and in your kitchen.”
The quiet Hernandez bristles as he talks about the anti-immigrant rhetoric he hears on the late-night television he watches after finishing a show.
“I see these guys talk on television, it seems they got educated in college but they don’t have any feelings about anything, they don’t know anything about life. They know what they are supposed to think, but they don’t have feelings for anybody. They don’t know the sacrifices people have to make to leave, to give first to their families and then to the government.”
With all their success, Los Tigres have made their own sacrifices. They play weekends, return home to San Jose for a few days in the middle of the week, then go back on the road. In a way, they are perpetual immigrants.
“I live all over the world,” said Hernandez. “I never feel that I live here. I feel like a tourist every place that I go.”
Home, for him, is on stage. “I feel most secure when I’m up on stage. It’s like I have more control there. Below I can’t control anything.”
But he can meet people like the 78-year-old man from El Salvador, visiting his two daughters in Des Moines, Iowa, who after less than a month of vacation went to work picking tomatoes.
“He didn’t want to not be doing anything,” Hernandez said. “These kind of people they got to be doing something because that’s their life. It’s like us, if we don’t do anything we’re not happy. We have to keep going.”